Europe straddles an industrial divide as it struggles to keep up with the US

These days, all of Europe seems to be on strike. In Britain, it's the coal miners. In Germany, it's the metalworkers. In France, it's the autoworkers, with an added dose of agitation courtesy of the steelworkers.

The similarities in the industrial unrest point to a common challenge. Can Europe preserve enough social peace to cut back on money-losing smokestack industries and transfer resources to high-tech export winners? The answer may help determine the future of these three governments and West Europe's fragile economic recovery.

''This is the key moment,'' says Danielle Overatch of the European Employers' Association, a Brussels-based group. ''Europe must restructure its industry if we are to compete in the world, and these strikes show the problems ahead.''

For all the apocalyptic talk, Mrs. Overatch is cautiously optimistic about the outcome. She says there is consensus on the need for industrial modernization. Politicians of the left and right, as well as bankers and businessmen interviewed for this article, echo this sentiment.

The striking workers naturally disagree with the cutbacks. Many deny there is a problem. Those who admit something has to be done propose a reduced workweek in hopes of sharing the reduced number of jobs. But despite the great political dangers involved, European governments are standing up to the workers.

Even such a sympathetic leader as France's Socialist President Francois Mitterrand is acting firmly. He recently announced plans to fire 25,000 workers from the state-owned steel plants - following similar tough measures in such ailing industries as coal, ships, and automobiles. Some 13,000 autoworkers will lose their jobs this year; some 5,000 shipbuilders will be layed off during the next three years; and as many of 30,000 coal jobs will be lost by 1990.

The goals are clear. At present, according to Jacques Moreau, a Socialist deputy in the European Parliament who specializes in industrial affairs, only about 58 percent of West Europe's work force are engaged in service or new technology companies. Mr. Moreau says this figure must be quickly raised to the American level of some 70 percent if European economies are going to create the new jobs necessary for a strong recovery.

''We still put too much emphasis on classical industries,'' Moreau says. ''We must move faster into the third industrial revolution.''

To achieve this transformation, Mitterrand's tough words toward private business have been replaced by calls for more entrepreneurs, backed by investment subsidies and a promise for lower taxes next year. J. Paul Horne, a Europe analyst for Smith-Barney, is pleased.

''It shows that governments, notwithstanding their political color, understand the realities of competition,'' Mr. Horne says. ''For the first time in memory, all European authorities are really trying to cut excess capacity and featherbedding, all the while holding down wage increases. What Mitterrand is doing is particularly incredible: It's tougher than anything a conservative government would have attempted.''

The risks of this approach, however, are evident. Mitterrand has pushed his government coalition with the Communists to the breaking point and alienated working-class followers. Polls show his popularity at an all-time low.

Similar risks face British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. By standing up to the coalminers, Mrs. Thatcher has led her crusade to control Britain's militant unions against perhaps the strongest and most militant group of workers. If she fails to break the miners' force, analysts say, her political prestige will be damaged, perhaps permanently.

In West Germany, Mr. Kohl has sided with the bosses against demands by the powerful I. G. Metall union for a 35-hour workweek, abandoning the government's traditional neutrality in labor disputes. This stand has infuriated the workers, and turned the conflict into a political test of wills, with the opposition Social Democrats being forced closer to the union.

''What is happening is terribly dangerous,'' warns Ernest Piehl of the European Trade Union Confederation. ''By aligning themselves with the employers, the government (is) making the conflicts just that more contentious. In a democracy, the government should be an arbiter, using its neutrality to calm disputes between companies and workers.''

But the governments feel an economic necessity to brave such dangers. As in the United States, aging industries are either making products few people want or producing them at costs much higher than in newly industrialized countries such as South Korea and Brazil.

Steel is one example. Officials at the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris explain that world steel demand dropped during the 1970s. By 1977, there was overmanning and overcapacity. Throughout Western Europe, companies cut back. In 1983, OECD figures show that some 656,000 steel jobs, just more than one-third of the total 10 years before, had been lost. Production was down some 27 percent.

This is not enough. Overcapacity continues, and the Europeans decided last year that they must cut production by another fifth by 1985. Government subsidies are supposed to end then, but officials now suggest that more cuts will be needed even to achieve this goal.

Economists warn that these cutbacks, combined with those in other declining industries, could push French unemployment from a present 2.2 million to nearly 3 million. British and West German unemployment figures are already at this high level.

Yet Mitterrand, Kohl, and Thatcher, apparently think they can survive the resulting labor protests. With a heavy sigh, workers' leaders agree. The unions are weak.

The present unrest clearly illustrates this weakness. French steelworkers have taken to the streets, but they have not dared to shut the mills for fear of even more plant closures and firings.

In England, too, the coalminers are not united. Many miners have kept on working while other workers are continuing to unload foreign coal and deliver it to plants.

''These workers are scared,'' says Mr. Horne of Smith-Barney. ''They don't want to also lose their jobs.''

In Germany, the situation is a bit different. Unions have focused their struggle on a profitable industry - automobiles - at a time of economic growth. Nonetheless, demographics and the labor-saving effect of technology are expected to keep unemployment high for the next decade, at well over two million.

For the employers, the key is competitiveness. Taxes, especially the heavy social security burden born by enterprises, must come down. Productivity must keep up with the US and Japan. This means it must be made easier to fire unneeded workers.

If this is accomplished, employers say even good-sized parts of Europe's old industries can be saved. Even the steel industry is not doomed. The cutbacks already made in England, for example, have brought British steel competitiveness almost to world levels. If this productivity can be kept steady, then most analysts predict the company will be able to maintain sizable production.

For the workers, though, the pain of this restructuring must be muted. Unlike Americans, Europeans are not willing to pick up and move to new booming areas. They demand that governments cushion firings with benefits. Union leaders, and even some businessmen, argue that despite the unions' weakness, some of these demands must be met. If workers feel crushed, they warn, the present strikes could turn into a labor revolution.

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